Employees who commit misconduct on social media - and then face disciplinary sanctions - are now a relatively regular occurrence in the employment tribunals. One of the latest social media related cases is Plant v API Microelectronics Limited, which took place in the Norwich employment tribunal earlier this year.
The background facts of the case are common for a social media dismissal - the employee was dismissed after posting content on Facebook which the employer considered to be derogatory. The case is also a useful reminder of the importance of a robust social media policy.
Mrs Plant was a machinery operator for API. She had 17 years' service as an API employee, and a clean disciplinary record.
In December 2015, API introduced a social media policy. The policy gave employees guidance on using social media, as well as listing examples of unacceptable use. These included making comments that:
- could damage the reputation of API, its products, its services or its employees;
- could damage API's customer and supplier relationships; and
- mentioned sensitive business-related topics, such as potential site closures.
The policy made clear that serious breaches of its terms could potentially amount to gross misconduct, leading to summary dismissal. It also reminded employees that they could not rely on social media platforms' privacy settings, as even private posts could be copied or forwarded to a public audience.
Disciplinary proceedings and dismissal
In August 2016, API informed its employees that it was thinking of relocating one of its factories.
Shortly after this, its management became concerned about certain posts on Mrs Plant's Facebook page (which identified her as an API employee). These included comments that she was a "dogsbody" of the company, and which were said to have upset other employees. API commenced disciplinary proceedings against Mrs Plant, on the basis of an alleged breach of its social media policy. The disciplinary hearer decided that Mrs Plant had committed gross misconduct, and summarily dismissed her.
Employment tribunal proceedings
Following her dismissal, Mrs Plant raised employment tribunal proceedings for unfair dismissal and breach of contract. A key aspect of her case was an argument that the outcome of dismissal was disproportionate and unfair.
The employment tribunal, however, decided that Mrs Plant had been fairly dismissed, noting that she accepted that she had breached API's social media policy. Although the employment tribunal observed that dismissing an employee with 17 years' clean service could be viewed as harsh, it decided that the decision to dismiss still fell within the band of reasonable responses open to a reasonable employer.
The importance of a robust social media policy
From the employment tribunal's written reasons for its decision (which can be accessed on gov.uk website) it is clear that API's robust social media policy was a cornerstone for the finding of a fair dismissal. The case demonstrates the importance of a clear social media policy setting out that misuse of social media is a conduct (and, potentially, a gross misconduct) issue.
Users of Workbox, the Employment team's online HR portal, can access detailed information on social media in the employment and HR context - together with a detailed social media policy for download. Have a look at the email, internet and social media section of the portal.